Erasmus of Rotterdam: Praise of Folly – La Capella Reial de Catalunya/ Hesperion XXI/ Jordi Savall, viola da gamba & dir. – Alia Vox multichannel SACD AVSA 9895 A/F (6 discs), 6+ hours [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

There have been fewer more important figures than Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), Dutch Renaissance Christian humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. Pacifist in nature, extremely important in the verbal battles with Protestant reformers like Luther, a scholar of world renown who translated important versions of the Greek and Latin editions of the New Testament, author, best friend of Thomas More, and diplomat. There have been few if any men like him since, and his accomplishments are legion. The only thing he probably suffered from is an acute sense of optimism, which was thwarted many times during his life when his own sometimes naiveté about the human condition proved him wrong. But few men were more positive about the human condition, and practically no one saw as much of the world as he did.

In this edition, the latest from Jordi Savall and company, we witness perhaps his most adventurous and enthralling work to date. In this richly decorated, lavishly produced set (with its typical massive notes in umpteen languages), Savall takes us on a musical journey through the times of Erasmus with his own writings as a guide. Starting with the famous Praise of Folly on CD 1, written as a counterpart to More’s Utopia, we are taken though the Life and Times of a Great Humanist, “Time of Reflections” (disc 2) and “Time of Confrontations” (disc 3). Each disc has some wonderfully-performed music from various composers representing a broad spectrum of the musical landscape of the time. And each has these aforementioned texts, letters, and other writings of Erasmus narrated between the music (or with the music accompanying) to form a very satisfying whole. For those who don’t know French, the multiple texts are given complete in the book in toto, and for those who really want to hear the spoken dialog in their own language, they can go to the Alia Vox website and download all three CDs in their own language—but not in Super Audio, unfortunately.

But it doesn’t end there. If you really don’t care to hear the spoken dialog, or maybe after the first time through you find it redundant, Savall has provided an additional three Super Audio discs of the same program sans spoken text. Quite a package and an amazingly thoughtful consideration of the consumer. It doesn’t come cheap—Amazon has it selling for eighty dollars—but this is a spectacular set that will gratify all early music lovers, and sets a new industry standard for production values—no one else even comes close. The performances are marvelous and the sound is typical of Alia Vox in their best issues—and that means state of the art.

—Steven Ritter